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Busy schedule helps water-polo star make a splash

Flagstaff Team

A US college scholarship set Devonport’s Katie McKenty on a path to sporting and academic success. She tells Helen Vause about juggling work commitments and Olympic dreams.

Twin peaks… Katie McKenty holds down a challenging day job as a geotechnical engineer while working towards her sporting goals at demanding early-morning and evening training sessions

New Zealand Water Polo Player of the Year Katie McKenty is an elite athlete in a high-performance job, living life at a fast pace.

On the day the 26-year-old Devonport-raised Takapuna Grammar (TGS) alumna snatched time to talk to the Flagstaff in a local cafe, her work as a geotechnical engineer had already involved donning her hard hat for a visit to a building site in pouring rain.

It’s a regular requirement of her chosen profession, dealing with the geotechnical issues encountered by building projects of all sizes.

Her full work days are bookended by training sessions, with early starts in the pool before the city has stirred, and evening workouts, meaning she doesn’t get home until between 8.30pm and 10pm.

It’s demanding, but it’s the life she’s become used to while pursuing her sporting goals along with her academic, and now professional, ambitions.

As a member of the national women’s water-polo squad, she has hopes of competing at the 2024 Olympics in a sport she first got a taste for in the junior form of ‘flippa ball’ at Vauxhall School.

McKenty started playing water polo proper at Belmont Intermediate. An athletic youngster, she tried most sports, including tennis, soccer, volleyball and netball.

Her mother, Toni, played badminton for New Zealand at three Commonwealth Games during the 1980s, and supported her daughter’s devotion to sport.

“I was into everything sporting as a kid,” McKenty recalls. “I guess I loved being fit and the excitement of the games.”

She had a ‘throw yourself right into it’ attitude to life, and laughs about the many mishaps of her childhood, pointing out a few scars that serve to remind her of them.

“I was a bold sort of kid and just full of beans. I climbed things and fell off things. In all, I think I’ve had five broken bones.”

The first bad childhood spill came in a game of tag when she broke her wrist. The next was much nastier: She’d climbed a tree at her family’s Tainui Rd home, fallen and skewered her leg in the picket fence below.

As a 10-year-old Tinkerbell in a local drama production, she fell out of a cargo net. And a year later, she was injured falling off the roof of the North Shore Rugby Club after she noticed a ladder leaning against the building and couldn’t resist climbing it.

In her teens at TGS, McKenty still played other sports but water polo began to take priority.

The speed and aggression it required, along with the need to outsmart the opposition, had her hooked.

So began the 5.30am starts – initially a couple of days a week – that would come to be a permanent fixture in her life.

“Mum and Dad ran me around a lot. They were very supportive, but they wanted me to get my driver’s licence as soon as I could and to start taking myself to training.”

In 2010, she made the national under-15 team and four years later went on to captain the New Zealand side at the Youth World Championships in Madrid.

In 2015, McKenty won a scholarship to play water polo in the United States and further her education. She set off to Hartwick College, a 225-year-old private university in New York State, where she lived for the next four years.

Hartwick is in Oneonta, a small town in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, where winter temperatures fall to minus six.

Students at Hartwick mostly live in dormitories on campus, totally immersed in their college world of sport, study and social life.

It was a far cry from home in Tainui Road and schooldays at TGS but McKenty was up for the challenges involved.

“I was so excited and couldn’t wait to get into it all. I was ready for it,” she says.

She has great memories of travelling around the US and to Greece with the college team, but also recalls a tough coach and the rigours of training. It was a step up from what she had experienced in Auckland.

McKenty came home in the term breaks and for Christmas in the New Zealand summer.

“When it came time to go back in January, it was tough to leave the beach and the sunshine and my family and friends to fly back to college and to the freezing cold. It was a wonderful experience, but at the end of it I was ready to come home.”

“So much of it is about tactics. You’ve got to be ahead of the opposition to outsmart them?

As a student at Hartwick, McKenty majored in geology. Back in New Zealand, she did her masters and qualified in geotechnical engineering at the University of Auckland.

She says she’s lucky her first boss, at GWE Consulting Engineers in Takapuna, is Devonport local Gareth Williams, who has been “hugely supportive” of her water-polo commitments.

McKenty made her senior international debut in 2018, and represented New Zealand at the world championships in South Korea in 2019. She was named national woman Water Polo Player of the Year for 2021.

Pursuing her sporting ambitions alongside a professional career may be demanding, but it’s the life she is used to.

“It’s my world, and after all these years it’s where my friends are too. It’s not great for your social life, but that doesn’t matter when you are already spending your time with people you want to be with.

Pool power… McKenty trains hard to maintain the fitness top-level water polo demands

“It’s given me the opportunity to travel and play high-level sport while I’m able to build a great career.”

Covid brought its own challenges for a sportswoman needing to maintain her fitness and optimism.

“I swam up and down Cheltenham Beach. Mum would often come down and watch me. “And I ran too. I’d run out from home as far as I could and then I’d have to make it back home. Every day was focused on figuring out how to keep up my fitness.”

Water polo demands particularly high levels of conditioning.

It’s all that frantic egg beating in the water just to stay afloat, says McKenty, laughing. She’s a utility player, which means she can switch positions, making fast tactical adjustments.

That’s part of the challenge she loves.

“So much of it is about tactics. You’ve got to be ahead of the opposition to outsmart them. “I’ve learned so much about ways to play the game from international play.”

The New Zealand women’s water-polo team has never qualified for the Olympics before. But they have played against other Olympic teams in overseas competitions and have performed well says McKenty.

She is confident they will qualify to compete at the Olympics in France in 2024.

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